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Germany's hollow stance toward Kremlin

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Jens Thurau
August 25, 2020

Doctors in Berlin have revealed that Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny may have been poisoned. Even if this were proven beyond doubt, the German government has no way to retaliate against Moscow, says Jens Thurau.

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin
Image: Getty Images/AFP/Y. Kadobnov

Here are the facts, as far as they can be corroborated: Aboard a flight from Siberia to Moscow, Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny began suffering serious health problems, necessitating his hospitalization.

Siberian doctors said Navalny, who has become known as one of President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critics, had suffered from a metabolic disorder. Soon thereafter, the gravely ill man was flown to Berlin for medical treatment, even though Russian authorities had argued he was too unwell to travel. Was his relocation deliberately delayed so that traces of his suspected poisoning would be harder to detect in his body? If so, the plan did not work. Shortly after Navalny's arrival in the German capital, Berlin doctors announced there was a high likelihood he had been poisoned.

A Russian warning shot?

In the wake of this suspected attempt on Navalny's life, there is once again talk of a deep rift emerging between Germany and Russia. But does this even come as a surprise? What if Russia welcomes that global attention is focused on the Navalny case, sparking outrage? Maybe Russia intends to deter other Kremlin critics? In any case, it does not seem Putin is particularly fazed by the case.

This is not the first suspected poisoning of a Kremlin critic. And it comes at a time when neither Germany nor the European Union can risk outright confrontation with Russia. The EU finds itself disunited over many pressing policy questions, and ties with the US — its erstwhile ally — have been deeply strained since President Donald Trump took power. On top of this, the EU finds itself overwhelmed by and uncertain how to respond to the events unfolding in Belarus.

DW's Jens Thurau
DW's Jens Thurau

What if Putin does intervene on behalf of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is facing mass protests? Could the EU even stop him? Not to mention the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which has plenty of critics in the US and the EU. As cynical as it may sound, Navalny's case will not force Germany to reorient its stance toward Russia, no matter the outrage it has engendered.

Business as usual

Germany's response to Navalny's suspected poisoning has been muted. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas issued a joint statement, surprisingly, calling for the case to be investigated — but nothing more. And Merkel's spokesperson made it clear she had not officially invited Navalny to be treated in Germany. He was, after all, flown to the German capital by a non-governmental organization.

Hopefully, the medical professionals in Berlin will help Navalny make it through this. But it is highly unlikely Germany will adopt a tougher stance on Russia or impose meaningful sanctions — just as it is highly improbable Russia will help shine any light on the Navalny case. This is a cynical assessment, granted. But these are the times we are living in.

German-Russian relations cool

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau